You Have 434 New Messages

11 June 2007

All yesterday afternoon an email list that I'm on (usually a quiet backwater of the internet) went into total tailspin as one person's email auto-reply (triggered by a conference announcement) spent hours and hours endlessly auto-replying to its own auto-replies, flooding the list. As afternoon turned to evening new messages continued to arrive at two minute intervals, with additional waves of auto-response triggered unwittingly by frustrated mails sent by people complaining about the deluge.

Kind of beautiful coming back to the hotel at one point to find 434 new messages, all with the same text, the subject line just getting longer and longer. This lonely machine talking to itself in a public space, the rest of us looking on powerless to do anything except delete its plaintive utterances.

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: etc

I guess if the Internet or the world, ever comes to an end, it may well be in circumstances like these.

The Warehouse Is Still Running

9 June 2007

Best line overheard on the street this week:
'but you were kissing a girl, you were kissing a girl, I saw you kissing a girl'.


"I want you to slow it down… Everything slower, much much slower. As slow as it can be. In fact you should hardly move at all."

Seems like I've been endlessly recommending Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder to people that I've bumped into, so now I'm extending that process here. The narrator is a man made super-rich overnight with the compensation pay-out that follows an accident involving "something falling from the sky". He soon puts his fortune to work orchestrating re-enactments – initially of banal scenes from his own past. The reconstructions change shape, scale and ambition but often involve the purchase, alteration and re-decoration of entire buildings, as well as the continuos employment of many actors/re-enactors, and technical people, on call 24 hours a day to (for example) be 'the lady that passes him on the stairwell whilst taking out her trash', or to be in the team shoving reluctant cats out of cages onto a neighbouring roof at particular moments to complete that all important detail in the picture.

There's some Ballard in there (= obsessive slow motion and staring at the texture of concrete) but also an enjoyable reminder of what I liked about Tibor Fischer's The Thought Gang – a kind of boisterous but somehow deadpan approach to narrative, full-on absurdity in no-nonsense prose. Like Fischer's book Remainder is good in the plot department (which Ballard never was/is) and Tom's book is great on people too – the narrators enthusiastic facilitator/assistant Naz is a terrific foil to the protagonist, comical and otherwise.

You're never quite sure what the narrator is chasing in Remainder but whatever he seeks to reconstruct it's not long before his interest moves on. I'm still haunted by the image of him ordering one complex re-enactment in a warehouse, with three teams working shifts around the clock, so that he can visit it any time day or night. He drops by a few times and is pleased with the work but soom gets preoccupied and somehow neglects to stop the warehouse. It's weeks later that the ever-efficient Naz reminds him 'The warehouse.. The warehouse is still running'. Very nice.

In the last month or so

7 June 2007

Amongst other things I was writing about Meg Stuart’s Re-visited and about Johnathan Burrows’ Both Sitting Duets, about different people’s stories at Barbara Campbell’s 1001 Nights Cast and about a visit to Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation Stand Alone. I was writing about That Night Follows Day, the performance I made with Victoria involving a cast of seventeen children, and about watching rehearsals for Edit Kaldor’s new performance. I was quoting Georges Perec, Gordon Craig and random spam and email fragments, I was linking to a fantastic video of John Cage on a game show in 1950-something and describing a trip to a chaotic Berlin Museum of the Wall. At some point I was even describing my dream of a performance that probably couldn’t be staged in real life, for technical reasons.

First Night

First Night

Frightening was the main word that came to mind watching the run through today, at least when I wasn’t laughing. We were pushing the edges when we made First Night back in 2001 and the piece doesn’t seem to have mellowed. I had shivers several times, as well as a strange alternation of flashbacks and memory blanks – thinking ‘oh yes, I remember‘ one moment and then ‘er, was it always like this?‘ the next. Three performances in London at Toynbee Hall starting Friday 8 June.

Gordon Craig

6 June 2007
Gordon Craig Book

Following the Dream of a Performance posting on Monday, Ant Hampton from Rotozaza mailed pictures of a couple of texts by Gordon Craig.

Your staircases thing yesterday immediately reminded me of a Gordon  Craig ‘vision’, and i started looking for the book, but couldn’t find  it. Later it turned up at B’s place and I went home with that and a whole pile of other books i’d lost… What’s really strange is that  it’s written more or less in the style of a notebook / blog entry,  and then today I’m reading your ‘dream of a performance’, an idea   also very in sync Craig’s ‘stage visions’… I’ll stick the whole page in here – you probably have this already. i find the way he  writes quite endearing, if not always that ‘clear’..

Ant’s amusing pragmatic solution to sending me the text; to take pictures of the book (you can see his hands there, to the left) doesn’t work so well at the size of picture I’m using here, so I’ve retyped a couple of the nicest passages below. I don’t really know Craig’s writing but from this stuff it seems like an interesting, anecdotal, slighlty antique take on some good ideas. If you want to read more the book Craig On Theatre is edited by J. Michael Walton and you can find it on Amazon here.

Ant is heading to Minneapolis today to present Rotozaza’s table/headphone performance Etiquette. It’s at the Guthrie though I’m not sure about exact dates and times… so I guess use Google if you happen to be in the area and want to attend.

“There are two kinds of drama and… they are very sharply divided. These two I would call the drama of speech and the drama of silence  and I think that Maeterlink’s streams, fountains and the rest come under the heading of the drama’s of silence – that is to say dramas where speech becomes paltry and inadequate… If we pursue this thought further we find that there are many things other than nature which enter into this drama of silence. [For example]… architecture. There is something so human and so poignant to me in a great city at a time of the night when there are no people about and no sounds. It is dreadfully sad until you walk till six o’clock in the morning. Then it is very exciting. And among all the dreams that the architect has laid upon the Earth, I know of no more lovely things than his flights of steps leading up and leading down, and of this feeling about architecture in my art I have often thought how could one give life (not a voice) to these places, using them to a dramatic end.. And so I began with a drama called The Steps. This is the first design, and there are three others. In each design I show the same place but the people who are cradled in it belong to each of its different moods.”


Gordon Craig Book 2“Here we see a man battling through a snowstorm, the movements of both snow and man being made actual. Now I wonder whether it would be better if we should have no snowstorm visualised, but only the man, making his symbolical gestures which should suggest to us a man fighting against the elements. In a way I suppose this would be better.

Still I have some doubts; for, following that line of argument in its logical sequence, then, would it not be still more near to art if we had no man, but only the movement of some intangible material which would suggest the movements which the soul of man makes battling against the soul of nature? Perhaps it would be better to have nothing at all.”

Dirty Work

5 June 2007
Dirty Work

What was most strange perhaps, watching Dirty Work again last night, nine years since we first performed it in England, was that it almost felt easy – or at least *not difficult* – in the way that the culture changes around things over the years, making them possible, or thinkable somehow. Back in 1998 it seemed like a big ask (or even a provocation or an affront) from us that an audience would just listen to a performance that consists of talking for an hour; that a piece would so self-consciously refuse to have any action, that it would instead conjure action virtually, through language alone. Watching the piece now that all seemed perfectly OK, a possibility everyone in the room could admit to, a fact that left the piece quite free to simply get on and do what it wanted and needed to do. It went really well.

I was shocked by how *material* some of the text seems. How much really like an event in the room it can be when Cathy says, for example, describing one scene in the ‘imaginary performance’ which the whole piece comprises:

The dissection of the corpses begins,
in an atmosphere of unease.
Cuts are made from adams apple to abdomen,the skin is peeled back and clamped…

Another strange thing is how short the piece feels! Just (almost) an hour in fact. These days we’d make it twice the length I’m sure… And with that there’d come a whole new difficulty!

One more performance in Toynbee tonight (6 June) and then we move on to the other piece First Night. See this previous post for all the details on place, dates and times.

The photo above is by Hugo Glendinning. 

Dream of a Performance

4 June 2007

The stage is a dip. We're looking down a hill of rich green grass and the performers walk slowly form the bottom at the start of the show, coming up the hill to speak with us, the audience, as one might arrive to a picnic and greet friends who've arrived already and  settled in some nice spot. We can see them coming for a long time. Once they've said hi they turn around and walk back down again. There is some kind of house-structure at the bottom, with plaster peeling on the walls.

Later they are dancing outside the house-structure and after a while I'm making gestures to the performers that certain people should hide or lie down. It seems important that we get a scene with one person alone. On-stage it's the regular crew of Forced Entertainment, with the addition of Franko B who's whole presence is not surprisingly very different than the rest, and who I find myself watching too much. At one point he's watering a tree, the watering can containing some kind metallic glitter. Its great but kind of distracting.

Later still everyone seems to be playing-dead – corpses strewn around on the grass – and a couple of performers, down there at the bottom of the hill are slowly dragging the bodies from off the grassy slope and off-stage. It looks like the scene of a massacre, something almost rural. I guess related to images we saw in the Deutsche Historische Museum last week showing Nazi slaughter of whole Czech villages where they suspected resistance fighters might be based. In the performance there's music playing. Its very moving – the scene with the slow removal of the bodies from the hillside down there at the distance and I know we're onto something – but the music is something vaguely ethnic and lamenting and its too much, too suitable, too cloying somehow. I'm yelling on to the stage and gesturing that they should find something 'more rock, or maybe rap.. something with energy' to counteract the tone. Clipse would be good maybe. Or Patti Smith. It will be moving anyway, I am yelling as people onstage rifle thru CD's to find something else,  we don't need the sad music, lose the music. It will be more moving if the music cuts against the scene.

When I wake I'm still half in the dream, trying to work out if the sight-lines to a descending hill of this sort might make such a setting practical or not.


3 June 2007

Georges Perec from Species of Spaces:

Staircases. We don't think enough about staircases.

Nothing was more beautiful, in old houses, than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, colder, more hostile, meaner in today's apartment buildings.

We should learn to live more on staircases. But how?

Meg Ryan Entombed in Cement

1 June 2007
First Night - Forced Entertainment

In London all next week with Forced Entertainment at Artsadmin’s Toynbee Studios in the East End, presenting two performances from the back-catalogue. Its pretty fascinating to be going back to these, and a rare chance to catch them again (or for the first time) if anyone’s in London. Do come and see.

End of the week is First Night (2001) – a kind of vaudeville gone-wrong, all rigid smiles, failed magic and sequins. Its on the very dark side of funny I guess – a nice reminder of the place we were in before the relatively easy-going attitude of shows like Bloody Mess (2004) and The World In Pictures (2006). Start of the week goes even further back in time to Dirty Work (1998) which is very stripped-down minimal, almost virtual theatre or cinema even, at least in the sense that nothing happens as such, everything is described/summoned in language. I guess this piece has a close relation to some of the things that I’ve been working with in video – especially the piece Starfucker in which white text titles appear in sequence on a black screen, each line an image involving some Hollywood star in the midst of some unexpected or inexplicable event or scenario.

Tom Cruise on an operating table.
David Soul in drag.
Michelle Pffiefer with her foot raised, just about to place it on a step.

You can read the short programme note I wrote for the re-presentations of First Night and Dirty Work below.

Dirty Work 5 – 6 June 2007 | 9:00 pm.
First Night 8 – 10 June 2007 | 9:00 pm.
Performance 10 June starts at 8pm.
Toynbee Studios, London. 020 7650 2350


A note on First Night and Dirty Work: June 2007

Think about it this way: inside the theatre there are only the performers and the audience. Onstage the performers have some material items – flimsy or not-so-flimsy scenery, various props and costume stuff. The audience, for their part, have their coats, their handbags and the contents of their pockets. But that’s all. The whole of the rest of the world ¬– its physical locations and landscapes, its entire population, its complete set of objects and its unfolding events – is invariably outside, emphatically absent. Theatre then must always be a way of making presence in the context of absence; a process of bringing in the world.


The two pieces we’re returning to, to present at Toynbee in this season, each come at the theatrical situation in quite different ways. The melodramatic tones of Dirty Work, with its trio of performers on an empty stage and its hint of music hall and bombast, contrasts sharply with what we always called the disastrous vaudeville of First Night, a performance in which the theatrical is pursued in a far more maximalist incarnation, via a line of performers with fixed grins washed up before us from some song-and-dance show.

In Dirty Work the two speakers approach the job of theatre through a bold, assertive act of summoning, assailing the bare stage with a text that pulls in as much as of the outside world as it can, always eager to find a new act, gimmick or show-stopping event with which to entertain, confront and challenge its audience.  Sketched in language alone, the performance shifts from theatrical spectacle to absurdist cabaret and includes, amongst many other things, fragmentary magic acts, scenes of murder mystery, Shakespeare and science fiction as well as mundane events drawn from daily life. At once a competition and a collaboration between the performers who each strive to make something happen using words, the performance is always fragile, an act of will and a determined attempt to draw something from nothing. As audience our presence and indeed our complicity in what takes place is essential, invited as we are to imagine all that is said, our minds constantly co-opted as a screen for the acts, scenes and events that are only described.

First Night for its part is focused less on the creative limits of the theatre act than on the dark double-bind between performers and audience, who are shown in this later work caught in a circle of mutual need, fear, laughter and incomprehension that soon spirals to make a fully-fledged black comedy of failure. The audience, for the hapless entertainers of First Night, are as much the start of a problem as they are a community of potential friends. The theatre’s distance from what we think of as the real world – whose absence is masked by only the thinnest veneer of patter and dances – becomes here a source of rich anger and absurdity. The masks of those onstage slip constantly, the fixed showbiz grins no more sustainable, plausible or human than the mugging of warmongering politicians at a badly staged photocall. The show goes on though (as the world does outside) and as it does so the end-of-the-pier dream of a theatre that might help us forget all our troubles and woes falls to pieces before us, like a car crash of sequins and greasepaint in slow motion.

We’re delighted to get the chance to re-present these pieces. If they each draw attention to problems in the theatrical economy, it’s not just, or not only for the sake of our interest in theatre itself. Instead for us the things that we approach through both Dirty Work and First Night – the role of the viewer in making meaning, the economy of expectations and the negotiation of rules on and off the stage, the temporary formation of community that happens in context of any live performance and of course the always-troubled play between reality and spectacle – are things that speak to the heart of the world we live in, to an understanding of what it is to live now, and to the possibilities of change.

TE, Sheffield, 2007.

You Break It You Pay For It

31 May 2007

Best Tom Waits image of the week:

A violin case lying wide-open, broken-backed filthy and discarded on the pavement and half-filled with rain water, somewhere down the way here on Rheinsburger Strasse.

Late afternoon, once the obligatory downpour is done, we see the Thomas Hirschhorn at Arndt & Partner. A sign on the door says its not suitable for kids but on my quick inspection I miss the images that are *really* unsuitable (colour inkjets of internet pictures showing  grisly corpses, probably in Iraq – faces shot to pieces, entrails wrapped around sticks, limbs hacked off). We’re in there already before I realise.

Hirschhorn - Stand AloneIts a good piece I think – long thick lengths of cardboard constructed ‘tree trunk’/ intestine/pipeline making their way thru all the rooms, obstructing ones progress, a series of large fireplaces spew detritus of timber and other stuff all over the floor making progress even harder, books are piled here and there, whilst smashed phones and computer elements (screens, keyboards, mice) are all parcel-taped to the walls here and there and what clear space remains is scrawled all over with marker-pen graffiti in red black and blue. A huge density to the text itself. Slogans, out-of-context words, mad phrases, many repeated so often that they become scrawl or meaningless scribble. Much of it is ersatz-political press-release-ese; phrases that seem to float around the war in Iraq – ‘containable situation‘, ‘sustainable democracy scenario‘ and ‘regional interests‘.

The rest is less nice talk – more bitter rumour, rant, paranoia and accusation; “Can’t get in. Can’t get out. Can’t get in. Can’t get out. Can’t get in. Can’t get out” it repeats at one place. In another spot who-ever has been writing stuff has given up and simply tried to cross out a wall-mounted clock using spray paint, a big crude black X running right across its face. In yet another there’s a scrawled version of the sign you often see in bijou antique shops – ‘If You Break It You Pay For It‘.

I guess that just about sums it up with Iraq.

M. came out saying ‘bleak, bleak, bleak..‘ but he seemed to get something from it.

S. for his part took one look at the first set of extremely grisly images (taped at intervals along the twisting tree-truck/pipe-line structures) and looked back to me.

Dad, these pictures are Horrid.” he said.

I laughed (trying not to make it worse..). “Yes. They are.. Maybe don’t spend too long looking at them..

OK” he said and with no sign of trouble, dismissing the pictures with the single word “Horrid” he went back to the game that he’d already invented, playing stepping-stones along the cardboard circles that Hirschhorn has taped at intervals on the floor. Amazing. I found something very resilient, very optimistic in that. Later we read some parts of the text together and talked about it. All fine.

What I liked about the piece is that its hard not to be in it – you are in it in fact, as soon as you step through the door. It surrounds you with itself, with the knots of the situation, with the horror of it, with the discourse around it, with the impossibility to escape and with the literal problem of navigating a space that is extremely barricaded, made difficult to pass through. I’d seen a related piece by Hirschhorn in New York some while ago (a year or more?) and hadn’t liked it that much – I think because that one so dwelt (and relied) on the same kind of war-images from Iraq, screaming with a voice invoking their authority and authenticity, but also, in a troubling way, underscoring their redundancy. In this more recent piece (Stand Alone it’s called) the reliance on the images is not so great, though they’re there in the background, like a serious toothache.  Instead the experience; ugly, disconcerting, rather total and immersive, is as much about space and language, about ones physical presence as a body/thinker/witness through language as it is about some kind of confrontation with ‘the truth’ or ‘the evidence’.

The image is one of several of Stand Alone at Hllr’s photoset on Flickr. Some rights reserved (see here for info).